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27 July 2006

Going Nowhere Fast?

by Tom Reed

Exactly five years ago I wrote an article for one of Ireland's equestrian publications about the state of breeding in our country. I highlighted problems and offered specific steps that breeders and the Irish Horse Board (IHB) should pursue to reverse Ireland's downward spiral in sport and breeding. At the time I wrote:

"The pop singer Billy Joel has an album entitled, "Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player". I feel a bit like that troubadour as a write this article about how the Irish studbook compares to our competitors. The news is not good. In fact, it is dismal. But I believe we stand at a crossroads, and if we make the right choices in the next few years we can return to the top of the showjumping rankings. It's going to take clear analysis, skillful implementation, and much courage and sacrifice from all of us. But we can get to the top again."

Let's review each of my proposals and see how much progress has been made.

Five Point Action Plan for Breeders

Only breed to top quality mares.
Ireland has lost ground on this measure. More and more "Blue Book" mares -- mares that descend from rejected but sound S1 and Supp 1 stallions and rejected but unsound S2 and Supp 2 stallions – have entered the breeding population and are producing even more Blue Book foals. This trend is a disaster for the Irish studbook because inferior mares produce inferior athletes and inferior breeding stock.

Only breed to top quality stallions.
Ireland has lost ground on this measure. In 2000 78.6% of foals were sired by Approved stallions; in 2004 the figure had fallen to 68.9%. Meanwhile there has been a 75% increase in the percentage of foals sired by S2/Supp 2 stallions, from 5.2% of foals registered in 2000 to 9.1% in 2004. There is no serious horse breeding country anywhere in the world that has nearly 1 out of 10 foals sired by unapproved stallions that have failed a basic veterinary examination, such as Ireland's S2/Supp 2 stallions.

Consider forming a partnership with like-minded breeders to upgrade your mares.
I see no evidence that mare owners are collaborating with other mare owners and/or stallion owners to acquire and retain top-class mares and fillies for their breeding programmes.

Become active in the Irish Horse Board.
In the last few years there seems to have been an increase in the number of elections that have been contested (although nobody put their name forward for election in the Clare/Galway region last month and the IHB had to go back to the membership and plead for nominees) and the IHB has done a much better job inviting breeders to stallion inspections. However the IHB is still neither sufficiently transparent in its policies and practices nor sufficiently responsive to its members.

Buy and study the "International Breeding Guide".
Many breeders, IHB officials, and especially stallion inspectors remain unfamiliar with both foreign bloodlines and how the policies and procedures of competing studbooks (such as those in Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Denmark) differ so dramatically from what the IHB does here in Ireland.

Ten Point Action Plan for the Irish Horse Board

Benchmark our studbook's policies, procedures, and programmes against the top 5 showjumping studbooks.
I see little evidence that the IHB is benchmarking its studbook and/or management policies and procedures against the world's top studbooks. There has been some progress (for example, the IHB now requires x-rays of stallion candidates), but we are not competing against a fixed target. The Dutch and other progressive studbooks are adopting policies and procedures on issues that the Irish studbook does not even recognize as being important.

Cull mares that are not suitable for breeding.
I see no evidence of increased culling of unsuitable mares and the IHB has instituted no policy, procedure, or incentive programme to encourage the culling of below-average broodmares. And the explosion in the number of Blue Book fillies being produced each year – many of which will be tomorrow's brood mares – means that the proportion of unsuitable mares in the gene-pool will increase dramatically over the next ten years.

Grade mares.
The IHB has not instituted a mare grading scheme.

Establish a quality mare purchase incentive scheme.
The IHB has created no new incentives for breeders to purchase and/or retain high quality mares and fillies.

Reform the stallion approval process.
Except for the institution of mandatory x-rays for stallion candidates and a long-overdue clarification of the criteria to pass the wind test, the stallion approval process remains amateurish and vacillates between cronyism and incompetence. Whereas our competing studbooks each have a small group of experts (for example, 4 - 6) who serve fixed terms on the stallion inspection committee, here in Ireland we use ad hoc inspectors – some of whom have little if any knowledge, expertise, or experience to bring to the job.

Reform the stallion purchase incentive scheme.
This scheme has not been reformed and continues to provide the financial incentive for stallion owners to "purchase" mediocre foreign and thoroughbred stallions.

Launch an annual Irish Stallion Show that will bring in foreign buyers from throughout the world.
No annual showcase for IHB-approved stallions has been launched and we continue to lag behind the Germans, Dutch, Danes, French, etc.

The Horse Board should collaborate more with the UCD Veterinary School.
There has been some improvement on this measure as several years ago the IHB finally made public the criteria necessary for a stallion to pass the wind test. However the system for evaluating x-rays is still extremely problematic because the decision is left in the hands of one individual rather than to a committee of veterinary experts knowledgeable about what x-ray changes are meaningful (or not) for breeding and sport purposes.

Institute term limits to bring new blood into the Board of Directors of the Irish Horse Board.
No term limits have been introduced and in a very undemocratic manner the Government is still permitted to appoint members to the Board and to effectively determine who holds the position of Director-General and Chairman.

The Department of Agriculture and the Board of Directors of the Irish Horse Board should conduct an independent review of the top management of the Irish Horse Board to assess its performance in running the Irish Studbook.
I am not aware of such a review having been done although I do note that the individuals who were Director-General and Chairman of the Board of the IHB at the time I wrote the article subsequently left their positions.

So where do we stand? Ireland is losing ground, and losing it fast.

Were it not for the contributions of Cavalier Royale the Irish studbook would not be in the world's top-fifteen list of showjumping studbooks (and as of today's date the Irish studbook is ranked 11th). And with the changes in international eventing that will lead to a reduction in the importance of thoroughbreds, I expect that three years from now Ireland will no longer be the undisputed leaders of eventing studbooks. Traditionalists who wish to ignore the contributions of world-class warmblood stallions to Irish breeding should note that the world's #1-ranked sire of international eventers is the Holsteiner Cavalier Royale!

Is Ireland going nowhere fast? No. Unfortunately Ireland is heading backwards as a breeding nation and change is needed now by breeders and the IHB.

Morningside Stud will continue to pursue its independent path of buying and breeding world-class stallions and mares to produce world-class athletes for the three Olympic disciplines. We've never followed the party line and we will not start now.